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Azarias report highlights need for action on agriculture sector abuse

March 10, 2021

A report from John Azarias’s National Agricultural Workforce Strategy has once again revealed the cesspool of worker abuse in Australian agriculture, and highlights the urgent need for a Royal Commission, according to the Retail Supply Chain Alliance.

The report, released last week, notes that “dependence on an overseas seasonal and transient workforce is one of the biggest issues faced by a number of developed countries”, and that “using low-cost labour is not a long-term solution, and indeed can be a highly risky option”.

The RSCA is a partnership between the Australian Workers’ Union, Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the Transport Workers’ Union.

The RSCA says that to save Australia’s horticulture industry we urgently need:

  • A Royal Commission into the industry – to uncover and end the culture of rorts, criminality and exploitation once and for all.
  • National Labour Hire Regulation – with real teeth, like the Victorian or Queensland We have to stop those who prey on the most vulnerable with their dodgy  employment practices.
  • A guaranteed minimum wage – changing the Horticulture Award to stop dodgy employers gaming piece rates to underpaying workers through a guaranteed minimum  hourly award rate for workers.
  • Tougher enforcement and penalties – including more inspection rights for unions and criminal penalties for those breaking the law.
  • Overhauling our broken migration system – cleaning up visa rorts and exploitation of foreign guest workers, including ending the exploitative ’88 days’ program for

“The Azarias report is thoughtful and timely and highlights the need for a Royal Commission into worker abuse in Australian farming,” AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton says.

“We’ve seen recently with aged care how powerful a Royal Commission can be. This report lays excellent groundwork, but experience tells us we need the full power of a Royal Commission for real change.

“A Royal Commission would allow us to hit the reset button on this industry as a nation. It would allow us to take stock and decide if we want to follow the United States down the low-cost foreign labour route, or Europe and Canada in the regulated AgriFood path. John Azarias has made it abundantly clear what his view is with this report.”

The report points out the problem can be addressed by the active regulation of seasonal migrant employment programs, as has been the case in countries like New Zealand and Canada. Some of its key recommendations include:

  • That the Australian Government require all 417 and 462 visa holders, prior to arrival in Australia, to apply for an Australian tax file number.
  • That the Australian Government establish a “fit and proper person” registration process for employers seeking to employ working holiday makers (visa subclasses 417 and 462).
  • That the Australian Government establish skills organisation pilots for the agriculture, fisheries and forestry, food and logistics industries.

SDA National Secretary Gerard Dwyer echoed the call for a Royal Commission but said there were things the Morrison government must do now.

“We need a Royal Commission but in the meantime the government would do well to simply get on and implement a range of these important recommendations,” Mr Dwyer says.

“We should require all working holiday visa holders to apply for a tax file number and we should have a ‘fit and proper person’ registration process for employers seeking to employ working holiday makers.”

TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine says: “The Azarias report makes it clear that Australia can go one of two ways: become a hotbed of labour abuse and backward practices or invest in skills to become a $100 billion AgriFood sector.

“If we want to take the latter path we need to urgently adopt recommendations like establishing skills organisation pilots not just for agriculture, but for logistics as well.”

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